Frankenpolitics: The Left defence of GMOs

Some background: Last September, Red Pepper, a progressive UK magazine, published a brief article,  “Silenced GM scientist speaks out against biotech coercion“, on its website about Gilles-Eric Seralini, the French molecular biologist sharply criticised by the scientific community for his infamous and headline-grabbing GMO-rat-tumour study, and promoting his British speaking tour. I’ve written for the magazine for many years and was furious that this discredited quack was being taken seriously by my colleagues. An extended email to the editors explaining the problems of the left-anti-GM position evolved into an essay for an upcoming print edition, which then turned into a multi-page debate between me and my friend Emma Hughes, a campaigner with the (really great) London-based environmental group Platform and who is also an opponent of genetic modification. 

The print edition has finally come out, but due to understandable space constraints, the full essay had to be condensed.

I present here a longer version because it contains a series of arguments that I feel are important but have yet to be made and did not make it into the print version, notably around Golden Rice, monoculture crops, superweeds, Big Organic, and the rhetoric of Indian anti-GM campaigner Vandana Shiva.

It is my hope in writing this that other Leftists will steadily begin to recognise that to oppose GM is in fact to take a detour from traditional left-wing ideas about progress, technology, nature – and, most of all, about political economy.

Illustration: Cressida Knapp

Illustration: Cressida Knapp

The global movement against genetic modification, it is fair to say, does in general spring from the green left side of the political spectrum, but is anti-GM campaigning actually that left-wing?

In May last year, UK activists from Take the Flour Back announced that they were going to ‘decontaminate’ – or tear up – GM wheat being tested by the Rothamsted Research institute, one of the oldest agricultural research bodies in the world. The grain being tested gives off an odour that repels aphids, and also attract wasps that parasitise the insects. As a result, the wheat, developed by publicly funded scientists, would require less synthetic pesticide – a development that is hardly likely to deliver profits to the pesticide manufacturers.

The next month, a 30-year-old research project in Italy, involving transgenic olive trees, cherry trees and kiwifruit vines — one of the longest-running GM trials in Europe – was ordered destroyed with only a few days’ notice by a court under pressure from an anti-GM group, the Genetic Rights Foundation.

The hoped-for result of the non-profit research, lead by plant scientist Eddo Rugini at the University of Tuscia, not concocted by any moustache-twiddling villains at Monsanto HQ, would again be a limit in the need for pesticides.

Students and colleagues stood by the aging Ruggini in solidarity amid the olive groves, but still the bulldozers arrived to rip up his life’s work. The elderly scientist was devastated. Colleagues encouraged him to move to the United States, where he’d received offers of work and where the mood is less fearful, but he replied despondently that he was simply too tired now.

When I was in Mexico last year investigating a series of bombings of nanotechnology researchers by eco-anarchists, I met a husband-and-wife team of molecular biologists working at a public university whose lab had twice been the target of anti-GM arsonists of a similar ideology to the nanotech bombers. The scientists described themselves as socialists and strong supporters of the recent mass Yo Soy 132 protests against electoral corruption by the right. They were also keen to say how they were very much opponents of Monsanto and agribusiness. Indeed, they said how they were frustrated that historically a great deal of crop research had been performed by Northern experts with little knowledge of the needs of Mexican farmers and consumers. So their aim instead was to develop transgenic crops resistant to drought and insects that built on local knowledge. Their work developing GM crops was a product of their belief in social justice, not an exception to it.

Is it beyond the imagination of anti-GM activists that genetic modification could be used for public benefit instead of private profit? The activists may well be sincere in opposing social injustice, but all the same, they think that these problems arise from something inherent in the technology. In so doing, the complaint is in fact not the business practices of Monsanto, or even capitalism, but technology and progress itself.

The Left used to be quite clear that technologies used in the context of colonisation and exploitation in another political and economic context could be liberatory. We didn’t want to do away with industry, but rather capture it and run it democratically.

There is nothing intrinsically malign about any particular technology outside of the context in which it is used. Knives can be used to chop cauliflower or to murder Tutsis and Hutus. Between the tool that we all use every day to cook with and the horror of Rwandan genocide, absolutely nothing in the technology of the knife has changed. All that has changed is the political economy.


Anti-GM activists are too often guilty of a variety of cherry-picking that New York Times environment correspondent Andy Revkin has called ‘single-study syndrome’: embracing a single study or handful of studies that fly in the face of the wider consensus.

In 2011, the Journal of Coastal Research published a study that purported to show that global sea-level rise has actually slowed since 1930. Subsequently debunked by climate scientists and research from the US Geological Survey, this one, single article has nevertheless been seized on by conservative climate sceptics around the world, and the authors, James Houston, retired director of the US Army Corps of Engineers’ research centre in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Robert Dean, emeritus professor of coastal engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville, have toured US climate-sceptic conferences.

While the US green left was correctly quick to condemn the Tea Party embrace of this single climate-sceptic paper, the anti-GM lobby continually refers to last year’s ‘study’ by Gilles-Eric Seralini claiming to show how GM corn causes cancer in rats and infamously discredited for its jaw-droppingly poor methodology. GM opponents say that Seralini has been the victim of an “orchestrated media campaign” to “silence” him, paid for by the biotech industry. But the criticism came from all quarters, not just Monsanto and friends.

In a rare joint statement, the French national academies of agriculture, medicine, pharmacy, sciences, technology and veterinary studies denounced the study as a “scientific non-event” that “spread fear among the public.” The country’s Higher Biotechnologies Council (HCB) declared: “The study provides no scientific information regarding the detection of any health risk,” while the National Agency for Food Safety (ANSES) said simply but witheringly: “The data are insufficient to establish scientifically a causal link.”

At last year’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) – the 125,000-strong professional association of US scientists – president Nina Fedoroff said she was now “scared to death” by what she described as an anti-science movement. “We are sliding back into a dark era,” she said. “And there seems little we can do about it.”

She spoke about academics and government researchers being stalked and intimidated over their research into climate change; email hacking, Facebook campaigns calling for them to be fired; expensive PR efforts by oil companies and think-tanks working to discredit the concept of anthropogenic global warming; and toe-curlingly shameless displays of scientific illiteracy by prominent Republican politicians.

We’re familiar with these sort of attacks on science from the right, of blimpish Tory climate denialism and Louisiana textbooks telling children that the existence of the Loch Ness Monster is proof that evolution is wrong. But Fedoroff was just as frightened of the vandalism, intimidation and violence directed towards biotechnology researchers from the green left. “I am profoundly depressed at just how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms,” she continued.

Have Monsanto and Syngenta managed to bribe the entire French and American scientific establishments? Well, if you read GMWatch, you probably think so. The leading anti-GM website actually believes the AAAS to be “captured from the top down”. This is as absurd and poorly argued as right-wing accusations from denialist bloggers like Watts Up With That’s Anthony Watts that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been captured by Greenpeace.

It should be a deep embarrassment to progressives, but the truth is that anti-GM activists are as guilty of anti-scientific thinking with regard to their pet subject as the Koch Brothers or the American Enterprise Institute are on global warming.

While there are a tiny number of scientists that question anthropogenic global warming, the overwhelming consensus is that human activity is responsible for the sharp increase in atmospheric CO2 over the past two centuries. Equally, while Gilles-Eric Seralini may be a professor of molecular biology at the University of Caen, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that there is no risk to human health or the environment from GM as a suite of techniques. Pointing at Seralini’s work and shouting “Look! Science-y!” ain’t enough.

This 2013 statement from the AAAS on the subject really does give a sense of how anti-GM is as fringe as climate denialism:

“The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe. The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.”

“We don’t need it anyway”

Nonetheless, opponents will regularly claim: “GM isn’t a isn’t a useful technology anyway,” or “We don’t need it.”

Let me ask you: Is the mass-production of insulin useful? Bacteria were some of the first organisms to be genetically modified by researchers. One of the earliest such instances of this was the insertion of the human insulin gene into E. coli bateria to produce synthetic human insulin, or ‘Humulin’ – indistinguishable from the pancreatic human version, developed by San Francisco biotech firm Genentech and first commercialised in 1982. Do go ask those with diabetes how useful this GM product is. Sadly, without any evidence other than the claim that humulin is ‘unnatural’, anti-GM groups like groups like the US Organic Consumers’ Association, Natural News, GM Watch and the Center for Food Safety want diabetes patients to opt for so-called natural animal insulin purified from the pancreas of cows and pigs over what they feel is the ‘Frankenmedicine’ variety, claiming that doctors have been coerced into “forcing patients off natural insulin” by Eli Lilly.

A range of human proteins helpful for a variety of medical conditions have also been produced since the 1980s through related processes, including blood clotting factors for haemophiliacs and human growth hormone to combat dwarfism – proteins that were previously derived from cadavers and as such risked transmitting diseases. Hepatitis B and HPV vaccines have been developed using genetic engineering.

Or how about cancer modelling – is that useful? Would these critics of GM say that “we do not need” the OncoMouse, the laboratory mouse genetically modified to carry a gene that when activated increases the chance that the mouse will develop cancer, thus making it extremely useful for cancer research?

Looking to the near future, if via the development of self-destructive GM mosquitoes, we can do away with mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, and chikungunya amongst others, isn’t that useful? This is not science fiction dreaming. A 2013 trial deployment in Brazil of mosquitoes engineered by a small Oxford biotech company to be sterile showed an incredible 96 percent suppression of dengue mosquito, Aedes aegypti. The trials were organised by the University of Sao Paolo and funded by the government.

Efforts to trial the GM mosquitoes in Florida last year however ran up against furious residents het up by fibs by environmental groups, despite the real public-health danger presented by the steady northward spread of mosquito-borne diseases as the climate changes.

Mosquitoes cause more human suffering than any other organism. Over a million people die every year from diseases spread by our ancient buzzing companion. If the sterile insect technique proves to be as successful as hoped, this will be one of the greatest advances in the history of our species, up there with the discovery of antibiotics and vaccines. The Left should be fighting to ensure that all parts of the world affected by mosquito-borne diseases get full access to GM mosquitoes, rather than just those regions that can afford the technique, and not campaigning to stop the trials.

And let’s just ask farmers themselves whether they find GM useful. In 1996, when Argentina first approved the cultivation of GM crops, it refused to grant Monsanto a patent for its Roundup Ready soybean seeds. The country has loose intellectual property rights for plant varieties, an intellectual property regime that has been the source of longstanding battles between Argentina and the company, with the government at one point denouncing Monsanto’s aggressive patent protection efforts as “extortion”. As a result of the impasse, ‘pirate’ use of the product soared.

The country is now the third largest producer of GM food in the world after the US and Brazil. By 2005, while some 80% of the country’s soybean acreage was planted with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready, only 28-50% of soybeans were ‘legally’ sold.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, far from being a case where farmers were forced into the use of GM, widespread smuggling of corn, wheat, cotton and vegetable seeds forced the government to give up on a completely ineffective ban on the technology. As of 2012, some 90% of the cotton grown in the country came from genetically modified seeds, while few farmers pay any royalties. Similar piracy occurs in Brazil. Why? Because of the generous savings accrued from the reduced inputs that are required.

“Meddling with Mother Nature”

Anti-GM protesters also argue that GM is fundamentally dangerous because “we’re meddling in things that we only half understand”. Well, we knew even less about genetics when we started artificial selection (a.k.a. breeding) around 10,000 years ago.

Plant breeders from the beginnings of crop cultivation sought out desirable traits in wild plants, unpredictably shuffling the genes of species via cross-breeding. It’s not true of course that cross-breeding is the same as modern genetic modification, but tangerines and nectarines for example are cultivars that certainly don’t exist in nature, and broccoli was engineered from a relative of the cabbage by the ancient Etruscans. Cauliflowers are no more ‘natural’ than Flavr Savr tomatoes. But difference with cauliflowers is that we are so used to them that we think of them as ‘natural’, and hence ‘good’.

To say that we are developing organisms “that have never been seen in nature before” is true. But the poodle, achieved through selective breeding, had also “never been seen in nature before”.

In the middle of the last century, our initial understanding of genetics allowed us to use chemicals and radiation to begin to accelerate the genetic changes we desired, resulting in products that were more nutrient-rich, hardier, and more drought-resistant. Then in the 1970s, modern molecular genetics and the invention of large-scale DNA sequencing permitted a profound improvement in our understanding of genetics. This in turn resulted in the creation of new methods that allow the very precise addition of useful traits to organisms.

The difference between ancient and modern genetic modification is, you could say, just the level of precision.

“It won’t solve hunger”

Another argument made by critics is that GM will not solve world hunger as some GM boosters claim. This at least is correct. There is – right now – more than enough food to feed the world’s population and then some. It’s not underproduction that’s the problem, but lack of an egalitarian distribution. Only by radically transforming our economic system will we truly do away with hunger.

But between now and the glorious day that this is achieved, why can’t we also, for example, improve nutrition through technology? Dietary micronutrient deficiencies – the lack of vitamin A, iodine, iron or zinc – produce marked increases in blindness, susceptibility to disease, and child mortality around the world.

Golden Rice, a variety of rice genetically engineered to be enriched with beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, was created with the aim of improving the nutrient-density of meals in those areas of the world where rice is all people can afford. After its development by publicly funded researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the University of Freiburg, biotech firm Syngenta subsequently developed a variety that produced 23 times more beta-carotene than the original Golden Rice. It is to be offered to poor farmers royalty-free and farmers may keep the seeds for replanting.

Greenpeace opposes its release as it could open the door to wider deployment of GM technology, and the venerable anti-GM campaigner Vandana Shiva argues that in focussing on vitamin A deficiency, the promoters of Golden Rice will prevent the wider, necessary discussion about the causes of malnutrition.

Globally, some 10 million children under the age of five die every year – a large number of them from diseases that could be prevented by better nutrition. Arguing that they need to die so that people will wake up to the barbarities of capitalism is itself barbaric. And yet Shiva keeps being invited to lefty conference after lefty conference! The left needs to provide a platform to Vandana Shiva like it needs to provide a platform to Tommy Robinson.

Those infamous suicides in India

But what about the campaigners’ favourite GM horror story, the infamous sharp rise in farmer suicides in India since the introduction in 2002 of varieties of cotton genetically modified to express Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) genes to produce resistance to bollworms?

A disingenuous 2005 PBS Frontline documentary suggested that the use of GM seeds from Monsanto and Cargill have led to increased debt burdens, with farmers forced into indentured labour to pay off loan sharks. But in 2008, the International Food Policy Research Institute, an independent agricultural research institute that has been sharply critical of multinationals, mounted the most extensive investigation into the subject, sifting through peer-reviewed journal articles, official and unofficial reports, media reports and broadcasts, and found “there is no evidence in available data of a ‘resurgence’ of farmer suicides” since 2002, and sharply criticised “media hype … fuelled by civil society organisations”.

The study found that the phenomenon of farmer suicides has been largely constant since 1997, arguing that the reasons for the growth in suicides – which is occurring across society – is complex, involving indebtedness, poor agricultural income, a downturn in the economy that had caused the re-ruralisation of urban-dwellers, the absence of counselling services, inadequate irrigation and the difficulty of farming in semi-arid regions. The decision by the government to reduce minimum support prices, World Trade Organisation policies and continued western cotton subsidies that make local cotton uncompetitive must also be taken into account.

A parallel investigation from economist K Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies noted that “mono-causal explanation of this complex phenomenon would be totally inadequate”. The author argues that suicides are concentrated in regions with high and predatory commercialisation of agriculture and very high levels of peasant debt. He notes that cash crop farmers are more susceptible than food crop growers and argues that one must look to a massive decline in investment in agriculture, the withdrawal of bank credit at a time of climbing input prices, a crash in farm incomes, growing water stress and efforts toward water privatisation. Remove Bt cotton from the equation and all these other factors remain untouched. Focussing on genetic modification and ignoring the real causes – as Nagaraj puts it: an “acute agrarian crisis in the country – and the state policies underlying this crisis” – is a dangerous distraction.


One issue that anti-GM campaigners have half-right surrounds the spread of ‘superweeds’ that can tolerate a certain herbicide nearby herbicide-resistant GM crops. Weeds that are susceptible to the herbicides die off while those that are not continue to live. This is just natural selection and would happen anyway, but evolution has been sped up by farmers’ over-reliance on a single weedkiller. It is indeed a serious problem, and resistant weeds have spread rapidly in the US, choking off production at a cost of millions in losses.

But this can be solved by a switch to a different herbicide or better crop rotation, with varied planting cycles, more temperate herbicide use and more locale-specific seeds. As these techniques vary season to season and year to year, resistance would evolve much more slowly.

Such a medley of tactics is just pretty elementary integrated pest management, but these practices have been forced out or forgotten as the supermarket chains pressure producers to grow as cheaply as possible.

Non-herbicidal solutions and such variability in planting practice will increase costs. Additionally, the likes of Monsanto and Syngenta make no money if a farmer plants “cover crop” – a crop planted primarily for purposes of soil quality or fertility, pest and weed control or disease prevention. Meanwhile, agribusiness research is biased towards where the money is – newer, stronger herbicides. For these companies, superweeds are just another market opportunity.

The crucial point though is that over-reliance on certain products doesn’t come from genetic modification, but the economics of the modern farming system.

Activists also regularly accuse GM of being ‘linked to’ the production of hectares upon hectares of monoculture crops, reducing biodiversity and contributing to soil erosion. Monocultural production can indeed be a problem, but this is an issue with non-GM monoculture as well. So criticise monoculture – and the economic relations that encourage its development – not GM.

By focussing on GM as the cause of superweeds and monoculture, campaigners are again letting the real villain – the free market – off the hook.

Big Organic

Don’t forget that there are large corporations that have a great deal at stake here as well and are bankrolling many groups involved in the anti-GM fight. We have to acknowledge that the anti-GM position actually benefits a range of multinational corporations. In last year’s Califormia ballot initiative to try to legislate GM food labelling, the second-largest backer of the Yes campaign, Mercola Health Resources, is a dietary supplement firm whose owner, Joseph Mercola, according to Quackwatch, has three times been warned by the FDA to stop making illegal claims about his products. Union-busting Whole Foods Market also backed the Yes side, while Just Label It, the national pressure group fighting for GMO labelling, was chaired by the head of Stonyfield Farm, an organic dairy firm that is 85 percent owned by French multinational Danone, simultaneously both the largest dairy product company and bottled water company in the world, whose 2010 revenues amounted to €19.3 billion.

The Cornucopia Institute, which was naming and shaming organic food companies whose parent firms backed the No side in California, was clear it is onside with Big Organic: “The Cornucopia Institute … stresses that the organization is not against corporate involvement in organics. We welcome corporate involvement in the organic food industry, but only when the parent company subscribes to the values that the organic food movement is based on.”

As the institute’s consumer guide to who was funding the two sides of the battle made graphically clear, they don’t believe the antagonism is corporate behemoths vs family farmers, cooperatives and peasants; the division is ‘chemical’ vs ‘natural’.

You say you are concerned about corporate control of the food industry? Well, you could actually be an accidental shill for a group of multinational corporations in this fight.

Remember how the biofuels industry initially was touted as a green alternative to fossil fuels by environmental groups, but when it was discovered that they were worse for the environment, biofuel producers pulled (and continue to pull) all manner of tricks to prevent their loss of subsidies. Could it not be that the organic industry is engaging in the same behaviour now?

Perhaps we could get all conspiratorial about the connections in the way that anti-GM website GM Watch regularly engages in accusations of guilt by association! We could note how last year’s famous Seralini rat-cancer study was bankrolled by Auchan and Carrefour, the two French retail multinationals. The latter supermarket chain launched an ad campaign for range of GM-free products just five days after the publication of Seralini’s paper.

Organic is big business these days. World organic food sales soared from $23 billion in 2002 to $52 billion in 2008, is the fastest growing sector of the American food marketplace, and as of last year, most independent organic food processors in the US had been swallowed up by multinational firms. And one could imagine that they might not want their profitable new market endangered.

Land use

A 2012 meta-analysis (basically a study of lots of studies – in this case 66 of them covering 34 crop species in both the developed and developing world) found that overall, average organic yields are 25% lower than conventional. So, in using up a third again the amount of land that conventional agriculture does, organic does not come off well in terms of land-use. This is not industry spin; it comes from researchers with McGill University’s Land Use and the Global Environment Lab in Montreal, a team of people very much dedicated to environmental preservation. (Not that the quality of a conclusion should be judged based on who it is doing the concluding. Bad research doesn’t become good research when it’s done by someone with good politics, and vice versa.)

If you were into Dan-Brown-style collusion and intrigue, you might be driven to remarking to yourself how convenient GM food scares, promoted by researchers funded by supermarket multinationals, are at a time when the evidence is beginning to show that organic food offers no additional nutrition, contains ‘natural’ pesticides that can be as toxic as synthetic ones, is less effective in preventing the spread of pathogens, and may actually be worse for the environment.

There are significant interests out there who stand to gain a lot from the continued mistaken belief that anything that has been genetically modified is inherently harmful.

In the 1960s, while the scientific consensus was that smoking was dangerous, Big Tobacco paid off unscrupulous scientists to keep alive the doubt in people’s minds over whether there was any harm. Today, while the scientific consensus is that GM is safe, is Big Organic hiring unscrupulous scientists in order to keep alive the same sort of doubt, but doubt as to whether GM is safe.? Merchants of doubt indeed.

Not that I would make any such remarks myself. I’m not the conspiratorial type. You might think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.

I should add here that I don’t want to beat up on organic too much. There are many other issues to consider than just yield and direct and indirect land-use, such as energy use, water use, water quality, nutrients, impact on biodiversity, carbon emissions, etc. For some crops and in some contexts, organic beats conventional.

Pesticide reduction

But surely if GM can reduce pesticide use and water use, isn’t this a good thing? A 20-year study at 36 sites in six provinces in northern China published in the journal Nature last January suggested that the deployment of Bt cotton provided a boost to biodiversity from a “marked increase in abundance” in beneficial insect predator ladybugs, lacewings and spiders as a result of the reduction in the use of pesticides.

Best of all, if one day we can grow delicious GM tomatoes in Sweden instead of importing them from Italy, cultivate GM coffee in Scotland instead of Columbia and GM cocoa in Massachusetts instead of the Ivory Coast, won’t this significantly reduce carbon emissions from transport?

In the end, what is going on here with opposition to genetic modification is the import into left-wing thinking of the logical fallacy of an ‘appeal to nature’ – the idea that what is found in nature is good and what is synthetic is bad. The origins of this scepticism of science, industry and progress can be found in romanticist counterrevolutionary thought that emerged in the 18th Century in opposition to republican movements. It is a cuckoo’s egg in the nest of the Left.

Transferred to human ecology, the inherent conservatism of this should quickly be revealed: Everything, or everyone – peasant, lord and king – has his place within the ‘natural order’. It is a defence of the status quo against the ‘unintended consequences’ of social programmes by interventionist governments. How alike are the arguments against genetic engineering and ‘social engineering’!

The American left-wing economist and anti-Vietnam-War activist Michael Albert years ago issued a jaunty, curmudgeonly aphorism that should be made into stickers that need to be slapped onto every environmentalist and food sovereignty activist’s notebook, laptop and bike frame: “There is nothing truthful, wise, humane, or strategic about confusing hostility to injustice and oppression, which is leftist, with hostility to science and rationality, which is nonsense.”

Let’s uproot an unjust political economy, not GM crops.


  1. So many important points in this article. I survived the recent campaign to require front of package labeling of GE/GMO foods in Washington state, but I have fewer friends as a result of asking follow-up questions of people who supported labeling. I’m really not opposed to information about any product or service, but I found that people had bought into a host of scary claims without doing their own research because the claims were touted by lefties.


  2. Aww, shucks. Thanks, Mem. It’s been really pleasant to see so many people who I respect on Twitter and elsewhere say such nice things (‘Boom, drops mic, walks off” was yours, I believe) about this piece.

    Let’s hope it changes some liberal-lefty minds.


  3. Damn: finally. will use this in my writing class on urban agriculture. This is excellent. Congratulations. I’ll bet Mike Albert is blanket opposed to nuclear power and GE though, whatever he may have said about science.


  4. Thanks, Gregory. Albert might well be. On the other hand, that quote is taken from Alan Sokal (of the infamous Sokal Affair) and Jean Bricmont’s book on anti-science silliness in the postmodern academy, ‘Fashionable Nonsense’. The pair of them are pretty strident leftists, but have no time for the detour from reason common in some left circles, so perhaps not. I don’t know. I just felt that it summed up how I felt on this issue (and a few other issues too).

    If he is indeed opposed to GE and nuclear, then I would encourage him to reconsider in the light of his insightful comment there.

    By the way – are you the Gregory Meyerson who has written in the Monthly Review?


  5. Great article. How do the reactionary misnathropic activists, quacks and Organickers get away with claiming to be “progressive” ?? In reality this is a deeply conservative and traditionalist movement. Good job and thanks!


    1. Well, quite. At some point I want to try to trace out the Romanticist, counter-Enlightenment origins of this sort of thinking. It’s not limited to GMOs, but anti-nuclear, alt-med, anti-vax, peak oil, anti-growth, anti-nanotech, the embrace of Lacan and psychoanalysis, localism, etc. I don’t however think that the left is as bad as the right on questions of science, as some people claim. There are a handful of issues that *some* green lefties embrace, but many other leftists with a more socialist orientation, with a good self-education in economics do not.

      And part of the progressive worldview is (supposed) to be about self-correction in the face of new evidence. So I think where the right is incorrigibly climate sceptic, the bits of the left that are quacktastic at least have a part of their mental toolkit that can, given a little encouragement, allow them to alter their positions.

      Also – really like your blog, Graham!


      1. I agree entirely with the general sentiment but there are several subsidiary points that I think need to be made here —

        Firstly, I think your proposed intellectual history is off. There are plenty of historians who disagree with the notion that there was such a thing as a coherent “Counter-Enlightenment” *at all* — this seems to have been something that largely came out of the fertile pattern-finding mind of Isaiah Berlin rather than a real historical phenomenon. Scholars familiar with the specific thinkers that Berlin analysed and, frankly, misrepresented have long recognised this to some extent, though owing to Berlin’s otherwise well-deserved legacy it’s only more recently that historians have really begun dissecting it in detail (see Robert Norton’s 2007 paper ‘The Myth of the Counter-Enlightenment’ in Journal of the History of Ideas 68:4). It’s fine — and desirable — to critique this kind of opposition to science on theoretical grounds, but when you move to construct an explicitly historical argument (and a specifically intellectual-historical one to boot) you need to be aware of the status of the actual historiography you’re going to be diving into. If you then try to tie this in with the psychoanalysts, who whatever else they did were early advocates of transforming psychology precisely from a speculative philosophy into a science, then I think the historical argument simply collapses.

        I generally also don’t think psychoanalysis deserves to be shunted in alongside the obvious types of crankery that you’ve listed here. Quite apart from its scientific merits — and in fact depending on what field the psychologist you ask is from, you might find that these are, at least, non-zero (personality studies in particular has a large debt to Freud and various Freudians) — the historical influence of psychoanlysis on the Left is an important legacy in that it exposed the shaky foundations of the liberal myth of the critical rational actor. Consensus science has confirmed this suspicion in many other ways, so we don’t *need* to hold onto psychoanalysis here, but Freud was perhaps the first person to actually make this point in seemingly empirical terms, and the Freudian influence on Western Marxism consists mainly in this point. So purging any hint of a psychoanalytic legacy from the left is just counterproductive, I would think, for that reason alone.

        On the matter of anti-growth, I don’t particularly agree with degrowth advocates but I also don’t see anything especially ‘antiscientific’ about them on an inherent level. It’s no less scientific than what constitutes mainstream neoliberal economics, and arguably less destructive.

        As a final note, and this I think is probably the most important point here, I do think that you potentially need to distinguish more carefully before an opposition to science and a healthy suspicion of ‘science’. I’m not talking here about things like nuclear power and GMOs, but about the transformation of governance into a ‘science’ as such — a better term would be something like technicity (following Schmitt). The reason I bring this up is that it’s dangerously easy to interpret criticisms of technicity as being criticisms of science and technology themselves, which they aren’t.

        The idea that it’s possible to turn politics and society more generally into a neutral sphere of ‘science’, where corporate or government bureaucrats can generate policy on purely technical grounds, is an obscurantist myth: what it obscures is the functioning of ideology, which is irreducibly present in the ends to which policy is actually being directed.

        I note this because it seems to me that your bringing up Lacan and psychoanalysis is an oblique reference to people like Žižek or the Frankfurt School who make this point — it’s important to emphasise, as Adorno and Marcuse very specifically did, that they are *not* criticising science but rather the misguided attempt to treat the application of science as an end when it is actually a means to an end determined by other factors.

  6. Thanks for your considered reply there, Vincent. I don’t have time at the moment to respond as fully, but I will say that my earlier comment was very brief and does not express my full thinking on the subject.

    Indeed I would say that while I have strong, settled opinions on the matter of GMOs and some of the other topics I mentioned, and the relationship to them of some sections of the left, precisely how we came to this point, where such Romanticist thinking is common (or even dominates) I am much less of a firm view. I am interested precisely in exploring where this comes from and what legitimately fits within this broad rubric and what doesn’t. So I take your arguments here as jumping off points to help with the exploration of this intellectual history. I’ve not read the Norton essay, but I shall.

    I will admit though that I was quite sympathetic to Chomsky in his recent bunfight with Žižek over these questions, although sadly neither he nor Žižek ever really alighted upon the nub of the matter.

    And my research into this so far has led me to a sort of very lightly traced two-fold trajectory (or braid) (and sketched out only in a mental pencil so its inaccuracies can be erased upon further investigation) of this retreat from promethean ambition on the left:

    1) German Romanticism/counter-Enlightenment –> Heidegger –> Adorno/Horkheimer –> postmodernists of different stripes –> what we now call Critical Theory –> anti-realism/anti-positivism/hyper-relativism –> popular (and in particular green) anti-industry/progress/science/enlightenment attitudes and magical thinking

    2) The material circumstances that condition (some) of this (and there are gaps here): WW1/industrialised war –> WW2/Holocaust/Hiroshima –> Hungary 1956 / disillusionment in Communism –> desultory result of 1968 –> Silent Spring / disillusionment with synthetic chemicals and plastics upon revelations about pollution in the 1970s –> TINA / neoliberalism –> Soviet collapse in 1989 / end of history –> legitimate concerns about climate catastrophe –> failure of the (socialist) left to mount a coherent response to crisis.

    As a counter to this, I am wondering whether it is possible to recover the red thread of a more rationalist-empiricist / analytic left? By this, I mean: the Radical Enlightenment of Spinoza, Diderot, Paine (that Jonathan Israel writes about distinct from the Moderate Enlightenment (see here; the intersections of Analytic Philosophy and marxism, etc. GA Cohen, John Roemer, Erik Olin Wright, et al. I have heard that there was some sort of left-wing neo-positivist school in Italy that flourished in the 50s and 60s. And of course the Sokal/Bricmont position. I don’t know. I’m rambling now.

    But this is what I’m exploring, if you have any suggestions, Vincent.

    Thanks again for the considered remarks.


    1. On the two histories you present: The second one, the material conditions, seems cogent to me as a broad-brush history of the mistaken course of the left. But I think the issue remains the conflation of postmodernism and critical theory. In American academia the two have become merged in an unfortunate way, but the Frankfurt School — Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse — were most definitely not postmodernist, and they were also firmly anti-Heideggerian — for precisely the reason you point out! Adorno in particular was as much an empirical sociologist as he was a theorist, and he strongly criticised the Romanticist tradition as well as the new left that was beginning to emerge by 1968 for what he saw as the fascist tendencies in both case.

      In fact there’s a nice essay by Benjamin on the fascist author Knut Hamsun, reproduced in the stalwart ‘Essential Frankfurt School Reader’ but to my knowledge not really engaged with in any detail by academics since, where he foreshadows the problems with green politics for the sake of green politics. Based on a reading of Hamsun’s work, he argues that what’s really going on here is the projection of authoritarian desires onto an anthropomorphised, patriarchal ‘Nature’. That argument seems to have continuing relevance to me.

      And Marcuse, who lived to see the heyday of first-generation postmodernism, launched a very explicit attack on postmodernism in his last major work “Counterrevolution and Revolt”, where he bemoans the fact that the left has broadened the critique of instrumental reason into an attack on reason itself. It would be strange indeed for someone as militantly pro-Enlightenment as Habermas to have come out of this tradition otherwise. For an explanation and history of critical theory in more detail I’d suggest having a look at Raymond Geuss’s short book “The Idea of a Critical Theory”.

      This isn’t an arcane historiographic point, because it goes back to the more relevant issue about the difference between science and technicity or what Adorno/Horkheimer called instrumental reason. Marcuse says in his famous essay on tolerance that the point is not to attack science, but to broaden social education so that it can be freed from its “destructive course”. To the extent that there *is* a problem with science, it’s the material conditions in which it’s being used, the social forces who are using it. That’s the core of the critique — science doesn’t operate in a vacuum; the question remains, as ever, ‘who whom?’

      ‘Continental philosophies’ may appear to merge into one from an outside perspective, but there really are key differences which delineate something like the Frankfurt School’s critique from the more all-encompassing, and ultimately more vapid, criticisms of postmodernism. While constructing a more scientifically-minded leftism, which I think is a very desirable thing, we should be careful not to throw the theoretical baby out with the bath-water.


      1. Thanks, Vincent, especially for the Benjamin, Marcuse and Geuss recommendations.The Benjamin essay looks particularly interesting. The more I plunge into the intellectual history of this, the more I feel like I’m playing a game of Minesweeper where I click on a single square and suddenly a whole vast new region of unexplored territory opens up. It’s basically a PhD rather than research for an essay that I should be doing 😉

      2. I know this is probably both a bit late to the discussion and pedantic, but I think the essay you recommended was actually written by Leo Lowenthal

      3. Thanks, Alex. Which essay are you referring to that Vincent mentioned? The essay on Knut Hamsun?

  7. No discussion on imperialism and how the control on agricultural prices by the global North increases the peasants debts…GM should be promoted but through those ways which can promote almost equal standard of living across rich and poor countries…


  8. “Equally, while Gilles-Eric Seralini may be a professor of molecular biology at the University of Caen, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that there is no risk to human health or the environment from GM as a suite of techniques.”
    This sentence is quite incorrect. No scientist would claim the absence of risk from any GM crop. This is why, every new GM crop must be tested beforehand, with question about the duration of the test raised by Seralini and others. Although, I strongly disagree with the methods used by Seralini, I consider this question perfectly legitimate.


    1. You seemed to have misread the part “GM as a suite of techniques”. This is not in any way saying “every GM crop is safe”, it simply says that the technology used to make GM crops is safe (because it is).
      So if someone made a GM tomato filled with hemlock juice (organic!) don’t eat it.
      But the problem is not how the hemlock juice was put in there.


  9. Reblogged this on Cami Ryan and commented:
    Lengthy but well worth the read: “FrankenPolitics” by Leigh Phillip Phillips

    “There is nothing intrinsically malign about any particular technology outside of the context in which it is used. Knives can be used to chop cauliflower or to murder…”


  10. I would have liked to have read your take on the labeling issue if you had included that in your article. I’m fairly well convinced that genetic engineering is no more likely than other breeding techniques to introduce hazardous things into our food, and in fact we are probably more likely to avoid problems due to extensive analysis for both commercial reasons and regulatory compliance. I completely reject the perception that a food product derived from an organism whose genetic endowment includes gene sequences added by ge methods is somehow a different category of food — that products of ge organisms are somehow less nutritious or more likely to be allergenic, toxic, carcinogenic. While I have long supported genetic engineering, I did not rule out that the potential that the method could somehow introduce unanticipated and adverse collateral changes in gene expression and regulation elsewhere in the genome. THat is a legitimate question, and I still don’t rule that out, and I don’t think anyone rules that potential out, but the more I have learned, the more confident I am that this is an unlikely occurrence and that we have greater ability to actually deal with this possibility. It is also increasingly apparent that this risk occurs with any breeding method, and may in fact be a reduced risk in genetic engineering. I would be more open to critics of the technology if they were able to advance a plausible mechanism for how ge introduces an unprecedented safety risk, or to present analysis of food composition that actually shows a material difference. However, what we are learning through the increasing sophistication and application of omics tools is that we can increasingly rule out that there are whacky and sinister alterations of transcriptions of genes, metabolites, and such due to ge alone. Actually, the differences between these variables in conventional varieties, and the same varieties but grown in different weather conditions, seasons and locations, than between a ge cultivar and its non ge parent or isolene variety. Thus, labeling is not an imperative of informing of any material difference, (if there were material differences, current law would already require labeling) its utility is pure psychological.


  11. Hi Rick – I did write a little bit about the labelling issue, but mainly as regards who was funding the two sides over the California ballot initiative.

    My personal take is that I don’t think it is necessary, as to label foods ‘GM’ or ‘GM-free’ is to suggest that there is a problem or risk that needs to be avoided, as with warnings that a chocolate bar may contain peanuts or similar, when there just isn’t. It keeps the anti-GM myth alive. It is as useful and meaningful as sticking on labels that say “Warning: May contain water”.

    As to the ‘unintended consequences’ worry, we can say the same to an even greater degree about conventional breeding techniques. At some point, there may well be a particular transgenic organism that is indeed problematic for some reason, and it may even be the case that its developers continue to place it on the market unethically. Only at that point – that is, on a case-by-case basis – should we argue for it to be discontinued.

    But this is true about *all* products, not just those involving GMOs, from woolly hats to car seatbelts to anti-odour shoe insoles.


  12. This is outstanding. Clear, concise, and hard-hitting without being overbearing. The worst part about having to write something like this is that one usually comes across as a prick (I know I sound like that), but you’ve somehow managed to avoid that. Tell me how!! 🙂

    Honestly, brilliant article. I occasionally wonder how the GM epoch will be viewed a few decades from now when it is routine. Will they be viewed upon as disdainfully as we look upon the white over-class a half-century back?


  13. Thanks for this Leigh, Cami was correct, long read but a good one. I have felt for a long time that proponents of the anti-GM movement are the most dangerous conspiracy theorists out there, with anti-vaccers coming in a close second. As I’m sure you know, the conspiracy theorist often falls into things like the confirmation bias (throwing out all the studies except Seralini or Carman) or false equivalence (associating the business practices of big Ag with the science behind GE).

    Even on the business angle I don’t really get why the Ag companies, especially Monsanto, get singled out so badly. In our current system, all big companies seek political pull and do things that some people will find abbhorent. Companies like Google or Apple are in the same game and pull some of the same and sometimes worse tricks. The more tax happy lefties should be pretty upset about the tax loopholes Obama said he was going to close years ago that companies focused on intellectual property use to ship their money around the globe to avoid taxation. Big companies in the tech sector were the largest campaign contributors to the current administration but I can’t recall the last time there was a march against Microsoft or a gallop against Google… Not only that but with how technologically dependant we are the big tech companies could turn the world upside down if they decided to use their science for evil and it wouldn’t take the decades that it seems to be taking for Monsanto to “kill us off”.


    1. Exactly. I’m not very happy with Apple’s aggressive intellectual property protection (they even have proprietary screws and screwdrivers now, FFS), but I don’t go around smashing up Apple stores.

      There is a real problem with the injustices of our current intellectual property regimes, and progressives are correct to be fighting against them (also because they inhibit innovation), but, as you say, this is not unique to GMOs.

      This is an argument for a different patent and copyright system, or even an end to patent and copyright altogether and replacement with some other compensation strategy. But then let’s have that discussion, not a technophobic one that emphasises instead the ickyness of one particular technology.


  14. Finally, at the end of the comments, you recognize the patent issue.

    Funny, given that the key problem with GMOs as I see it, stems from the introduction of patents on living things. The ability for a person, or a corporation, to own the rights to living organisms and profit from them is what makes GMOs inherently problematic. Thanks to patent law, there now exists the possibility that a corporation will someday own the rights to our food supply and our ability to grow the food we need to feed ourselves. The fact the GMOs aren’t limited to food, means that other critical components to human life or the ecosystem might also someday be owned. This is because of the way that GMOs reproduce in nature and because of the way that corporations have been trying to patent organisms that they wish to own, but did not create.

    Unlike cars or toothpicks or cans of Coke, GMOs spread in the environment, breed with non-GMOs and “infect” the non-GMO world with corporate ownership. A farmer, Percy Schmeiser, who plants a field of non-GMO corn, finds himself embroiled in a lawsuit with Monsanto because they found their product in his fields of corn and they want him to pay them for it. The WTO TRIPS Agreement creates more problems. The continuous efforts of corporations to patent crops that people have grown for years has created a response in the form of advocacy for “farmers’ rights,” which is essentially the right for farmers to do the things that they did before GMOs and the subsequent patentability of organisms were introduced. Read this, for example:

    The fact that it is possible to own organisms has resulted in the private sector, motivated by the desire for profits, to pursue creative strategies to own as much as they can. Creativity with the goal of eliminating the competition/naturally occurring biodiversity. Before the patent issue was introduced, we were already effectively reducing biodiversity. Apple varieties being grown were reduced to the most popular 5, carrots became equated with “orange” even though they exist in a rainbow of colours, a couple varieties of preferred beefsteak tomato replaced the hundreds (if not thousands) of varieties that had been grown previously. Everyone already growing the same varieties plays very well into the hands of the corporation who would like to own the rights to the tomato varieties that are sold in grocery stores across the planet. All they have to do is find a way to patent those varieties, or get those farmers to switch to their varieties, and so that’s what they’re doing. Most of the corn, soy, and canola that we grow now are patented/GM varieties.

    Efforts are underway (and may have already happened) to create GM fish (which could breed with non-GM fish and create patented offspring), GM trees, and other non-food organisms.

    The other problem that stems from the introduction of patents is the lack of adequate testing to protect human and ecosystem health that occurs when you have for-profit corporations wanting to introduce products as quickly as possible so that they can make as much money as possible. This is where people’s concerns about safety and potential human and ecosystem health come in. GMOs are not adequately tested before they are introduced. Period. Their effect on human and ecosystem health is unknown. Not surprisingly, people find this upsetting. And as there are no efforts underway to change the testing or regulatory process, many are advocating for banning them altogether. The less extreme demand is mandatory labelling, so at least people will know what they’re eating, but even that has been near impossible to achieve.

    This is an excellent article that talks about the problems with testing and regulation (a rarity):

    What you’re complaining about in your post are the efforts of people who tried and failed to prevent the patenting of living organisms, who have tried and failed to fight inadequate regulation, and who are now left fighting–not progress–but the inherently problematic products of these problematic systems.


    1. You seem to have understood my article a bit too quickly, Erratic Heretic. I wrote extensively about the patent issue in the piece, regarding in particular Argentina.

      The issue of ‘insufficient testing’ is also addressed. You are in effect the same as the climate denialists who say the science on global warming ‘isn’t in yet’.

      Perhaps you could give the piece a second read, not scanning this time. Please especially read the bit about Argentina, Pakistan and Brazil. This completely addresses your concerns.


      1. You’re right, I skimmed.

        However I did not find my concerns “completely addressed” upon closer reading; I simply found more faults.

        You did not write “extensively” about the patent issue at all. And with regards to your Argentina example that you directed me to (one of the few short paragraphs where it’s mentioned), you fail to acknowledge the point that that is made clear here: Namely, while patent-holders have been largely unsuccessful to date, the patentability of GMOs continues to threaten the sovereignty of farmers in countries where the GMOs have not been patented through the ongoing efforts of patent-holders to reap more profits. In countries where GMOs have been successfully patented, the threat is far more serious as patent-holders have been largely successful in their claims of ownership. You don’t address that situation at all, even though it’s the one that likely hits closer to home for most of the people reading your blog.

        And your attempts to address the insufficient testing issue fall flat, given that they rest upon the totally hilarious argument that transgenic genetic modification isn’t any different than the creation of the poodle breed of dog through selective breeding. If you can tell me how the genes of a fish might end up as part of the genetic makeup of a strawberry through a process other than genetic engineering in a lab, I will happily buy your argument that it’s simply a matter of the level of precision. You might consider reading the second link I provided in my initial response if you’re still unclear about the difference and why it matters when it comes to the issue of adequate testing and regulation.

        And this is equally hilarious: “You say you are concerned about corporate control of the food industry? Well, you could actually be an accidental shill for a group of multinational corporations in this fight.” If all it takes to discredit a left-wing/progressive position on an issue is for some corporation or group of corporations to decide to take the same side, then we had might as well give up now. No point in trying to fight global hunger, since Monsanto also says that’s important. ETC.

  15. “There is nothing intrinsically malign about any particular technology outside of the context in which it is used. Knives can be used to chop cauliflower or to murder Tutsis and Hutus.”

    While I appreciate the general point of the article – Anti-GMO sentiment does indeed obfuscate a romantic, reactionary component within some ‘Left’ movements – I’m dismayed to see this old (easily-falsifiable) canard being dragged out once again. Technologies have traits. Those traits differ from those of other technologies. These traits enable some things, block others; they incentivize and disincentivise. As has been pointed out many times, the technology of nuclear power necessitates a strong State in a way that solar power does not. One can use the barrel of a grenade launcher as a trowel to plant peas in one’s garden, but a grenade launcher is not a trowel.

    As for the intellectual genealogy of radical Green movements vis a vis the socialist Left, I fear people may be overthinking things a bit. Tracing PoMo theory as it interacts with Critical Theory may be interesting in regards to the world professariat, but few Radical Greens are academics, and few modern academic theories affect those outside academia. As I see it:

    1) Scientists begin to make people aware of various environmental problems. Awareness grows exponentially.

    2) Capitalism predictably shows no interest in addressing these problems, felt as they disproportionally by the poor and non-white.

    3) Those concerned look for other ideologies that might incorporate resistance on this front. To many, Left Socialism simply isn’t considered an option: in the U.S. because a systematic eradication of the idealogical backing of the Left, in the rest of the world because Left Socialism simply doesn’t have the will or the power to exert change on these issues.

    4) Left with no other option, people because to simply valorize what they see as the opposite of environmental degradation in the name of profit. *YOU* have destructive capitalism, *I* have neotribal eco-anarchism.


  16. this is one the more engaged write ups about the movement to regain ‘food security’ as a tenant of sustainable and sovereign future. those who control the food (and resources to grow them) controls the masses. people are beginning to see the connections between corporate control of food and the security systems in place to maintain that capital investment. what your article overlooks is the potential for coalition building between groups that are concerned about our future ( whether they are anti militarists, eco warriors, and or socialists ) and the managers of the status quo. food sovereignty is a growing revolution! great write up non the less! mahalo nui for that!


  17. many interesting points in this article, thank you. i am not inherently opposed to genetic modification as i believe modern science has a lot to offer. many of us “left wing liberals” have no desire to have knee-jerk reactions, or be anti-science. often, the reaction is born of a mistrust of the giant bio-tech/chem ag companies which seem intent on controlling the world food. and the fact that GM crops unintentionally contaminate non-GMO crops is problematic, at the very least. the last section of the article begins with “surely, if GM can reduce pesticide use…” and that is a huge “if”, so far not evidenced by proof of practice. there are many synthetic pesticides used in the farming of GM crops and many RUPs used in order to determine what crops can handle. many of these pesticides are, without a doubt, harmful. not all GM is the same, just as not all organics are the same. and i completely agree that it is the food economy which needs to be overhauled.


  18. Erratic Heretic, you write: “If you can tell me how the genes of a fish might end up as part of the genetic makeup of a strawberry through a process other than genetic engineering in a lab, I will happily buy your argument that it’s simply a matter of the level of precision.”

    Are you ready for this? Here goes:

    It’s true that it was once thought that the different chunks of DNA were thought to be unique to each species, but we now know that they can be found in very distantly related species (and remember that all species are ultimately related). It turns out that almost a quarter of cow DNA comes from snakes.

    I know it sounds really weird, but it’s true. It’s called horizontal gene transfer and likely happens via viruses, worms or bugs. This happens most commonly amongst bacteria and is rarer with more complex animals, but it still happens, hence the snakeyness of the cow.

    And here’s where it gets really cool and strange: Viruses trade up to a trillion trillion (that’s not a typo) genes between host genomes in the oceans alone every year.

    All organisms are a fantastic mosaic of different genomes, with lots and lots and lots of genes imported by viruses. So while once we may have thought of a tree or even bush of life, life is more like a bustling market bazaar, with genes trading back and forth.

    So the idea that crossing the ‘barriers between species’ is a freak of nature – turns out to be not true at all. Mother nature does it all the time. We wouldn’t be who we are if it weren’t for this process, much of this is essential in order to live and reproduce.

    Humans are part virus, it turns out! You can think of this as yucky, or you can marvel at it, it’s up to you, but don’t think this is anything other than completely normal. What we’re doing is just performing this process in a directed, planned manner.

    By the way – your sign-off there, ‘ETC’: was that meant as in ‘etcetera’ or as in the ETC Group, the NGO haterz of synthetic biology, nanotech and neuroscience?


  19. I am both a socialist and a trenchant proponent of the libertory potential of science and technology. I share many of the concerns that you have all documented about the increasingly reactionary, atavistic and anti-scientific attitudes which have begun to infiltrate the Left in recent decades.

    That being said, I cannot bring myself to agree with the very one-sided and myopic presentation of the implications of GM in this article.

    To begin with, this essay repeatedly attempts to establish a false dichotomy between supporters of science and anti-science–as if those who defend the potentialities of science therefore ‘must’ be all for GM. The Left, or at least the non-reductionist Left, has never attempted to reduce the broader ramifications of science to the instrumental rationality of political economy–which seems to be the case here. Concretely, the most basic understanding of ecological science and how ecosystems function–particularly with regard to keystone species–is enough to suggest that we, as a species, must absolutely adopt the precautionary principle when dealing with GM. Minimally, this means long-term field studies into the ecological implications of GM, for human, animal and ecosystem health. To my knowledge, such studies have never been done–and don’t you think that if they had, the monied interests behind GM would be shouting about them from the rooftops? The fact remains that, in contrast to traditional and more organic forms of land cultivation and knowledge, GM is a pandora’s box, and if we are to have any pretense of responsibility toward our ecosystems and species, we must first establish the requisite long-term studies into the *ecology* of GM impact, not merely its economic impact.

    Let me give you some examples. The essay mentions the wonderful human health impacts of the genetic modification of mosquitoes, which are surely commendable. But what happens to the stability of an ecosystem when mosquito numbers plummet dramatically? What about the abundance of creatures that feed on mosquitoes–bugs, beetles, birds and so on–which provide important checks and balances and other forms of nourishment to the eco-community?

    Even more importantly–it is crudely instrumental and short-sighted, dare I say bourgeois, to simply view the land as a “resource” in the manner of political economy (as it is being presented here). In fact, while synthetic fertilizers and pesticides may indeed be labour-saving devices in the short run, and may lead to short-term higher yields, they are absolutely disastrous for farmers in the long run. They totally ruin the micro-biological life of the soil and in many cases bring about widespread soil sterilisation–just look at the legacy of super-phosphorous as an example. Need I point out that prior to the 20th century, commercial pesticides and synthetic fertilizers didn’t exist on a large scale–and yet civilisation still functioned, and there were still enough food surpluses for the capitalists to have to dump thousands of ships full of wheat, coffee, sugar, and other colonial imports into the sea, to keep up the illusion of scarcity and therefore profits? This is well documented in Charles Fourier’s essay “On Economic Liberalism.”

    Thus, in contrast to how organics are being presented here, in many respects organic cultivation is the most rational approach to agriculture from a scientific point of view. What you fail to mention is that organic cultivation is the one tried and tested method to ensure ecosystem health and balance–particularly given that many organic certification authorities, even under capitalism, require a certain percentage of land to be set aside as wildlife corridors. Organic farming methods also encourage companion planting–a far more ecologically-sensitive practice than hundreds of acres of a monocrop, which is extremely common in GM soy plantations in Latin America and in GM corn plantations in the US. I’m sure I don’t need to point out that by “scientific” I mean an ecologically-holistic and mature scientific view–not the instrumental reason that belies bourgeois political economy.

    A more dialectical analysis of how ‘science’ functions under capitalism would reveal that many institutions of “science” cited here, such as the AMA or the US government, are hardly the paragons of neutrality and public interest that they are being portrayed as.

    There are plenty of people on the Left that have supported organic farming over chemicals and GM while maintaining an incisive critique of irrationalism, postmodernism and anti-science on the Left–Murray Bookchin is but one example. We do not have to accept the false dichotomy that is being offered here; the GM science is neither as conclusive or as holistic as claimed.


    1. Thanks for the comments, DG, although naturally I’m not going to appreciate the snide ad hominem.

      But whatevs. Let’s have a look at the substance of your critique, which, correct me if I’ve boiled away the continental obscurantism too much (Sorry! Now I’m engaging in a bit of ad hominem. Oops!), but come down to three key points:

      a) You want long-term field studies into human, animal and environmental health and safety before moving forward, adding, “To my knowledge, these have never been done”. This is a classic argument from anti-GM activists, and it is false. I pointed out in the essay that such work had indeed been done, and that there is a scientific consensus on safety as tight as there is for anthropogenic global warming. A survey of GE crop safety research over the last ten years alone looked at 1783 studies, including longitudinal research covering biodiversity, gene flow with wild relatives, horizontal gene transfer in soil, interaction with humans and animals, food and feed consumption, and traceability.

      b) “in contrast to traditional and more organic forms of land cultivation and knowledge, GM is a Pandora’s Box”. Evidence please.

      c) You are concerned about the use of pesticides. I think you mean synthetic pesticides, but let’s not quibble about terminology. I too am concerned about the use of synthetic pesticides, as should have been understood from my essay, particularly the paragraphs about how some GM crops are designed to reduce pesticide use.

      d) You claim without proving that organic cultivation is the most rational approach to agriculture, adding some language about “ecosystem health and balance”. I did say that in certain conditions, organic is indeed likely to be part of the mix. Please read those paragraphs again. Meanwhile, you’ll remember my paragraphs discussing the abandonment of the concept of ‘balance of nature’ by conservationists. Again, perhaps have another read of those paragraphs.

      e) Monoculture. I address this too. Really, DG, you must try harder next term with your reading comprehension. (Sorry! More ad hominem! Bad Leigh! Bad Leigh!)

      f) “many institutions of “science” cited here, such as the AMA or the US government, are hardly the paragons of neutrality and public interest that they are being portrayed as.” I’m not claiming that they are. I am suggesting that we should avoid conspiratorial thinking. See earlier comments on scientific consensus.

      g) I stand accused of instrumental rationality. We can have a discussion about Horkheimer some other time if you like, but if instrumental reason is defined as being interested only in determining the means to a goal, without reasoning about ends in themselves, I think I have demonstrated that I am thinking very much about what goals we as a society should be setting and how we should be setting them. But it is true, I usually take my leave when Horkheimer and Heidegger pop up. I am indeed a partisan of modernity and the radical Enlightenment.

      Lastly, if I were king of the universe (not v socialist, I know), I would ban anyone from ever again using the word “holistic”, on pain of death.


      1. do you know what an ad hominem is? cause it really seems like you don’t.

        not much evidence here of your understanding of marxism, either.

        scientific literacy? you create a simplistic caricature of anti-gm activism, conveniently ignoring the serious political and economic reasons for its opposition, and dealing not at all with the sophisticated science of agroecology (see monthly review). having limited the scope of debate and dumbed it down to accommodate your level of understanding, you then enact a dramatic light saber battle with your medieval nemesis, whom you easily vanquish in the name of Enlightenment and Modernity. standing triumphantly over the defeated, your Science fanboy buddies slap high fives and bravely kick the corpse (“gm critics = white overclass!”). meanwhile outside your bedroom the real life battle against agribiz and biotech enclosures goes on.

  20. scardenelli: you’ve given no evidence for any of your claims, which are really a half a dozen or so insults. Just a gross post. and that’s an insult.


  21. Phenomenally written in all aspects. I referenced your article on a small paper I did on GMOs (I’m a current student studying biotechnology).

    Furthermore, I enjoy that you mentioned that GMOs are no more debatable within the science community than global warming (this is a point I’ve brought up a few times while having a discussion with anti-GMOers.. Oddly enough the last individual was also a ‘non-believer’ in global warming as well *face palm*).

    I will mention that synthetic pesticides (example, glyphosate) are specifically designed to use in lesser amounts as to have a less toxic effect on both the environment and by extension the health of the surrounding wild life. All I am implying by this, is that just because something is synthetic doesn’t mean it is necessarily worse.

    The anti-GMO movement almost always uses wildly inaccurate pesticide claims to back up their point that ‘organic is better,’ but what they fail to realize is that Organic in itself is a growing industry. There’s been studies done at (Canadian) grocery stores by taking a lab analysis of organic produce, and in some cases the produce tested positive for pesticides that are against Organic labelling regulations. Nothing has exceeded dangerous health amounts (at least not to my knowledge) but it just goes to show ya how much of a joke labelling actually is.!/content/1.2487712
    There’s also a few good articles posted on biofortified if anyone wants to read a bit more (on pesticide use and GMOs).

    As I said earlier, phenomenal read. I look forward to reading more of your work!


    1. Hi Jess,

      Thanks for your kind words. I’d be keen to have a read of your paper. My email’s leigh dot phillips at gmail dot com.

      I thought about going deeper into the chemophobia behind a lot of commentary about pesticides, but then decided that my essay was long enough as it is. So thanks for the additional links there!


  22. Hi Leigh

    I drafted a 2,800 word crtiical response to you about a year ago, carved out of other work I was doing at the time. I sent it off to Red Pepper asking if I could fashion a contribution to their debate out of it . I didn’t receive a reply, so I just let it lapse.

    But I’ve recently returnd to the topic and have both that piece to Red Peppper on hand as well as a much, much longer article on the topic more generally, covering GM as such but aso the nature and control of the research agenda and the regualtory regimes for GM crops. Would you be interested in seeing either of them? If so, give me an email I can send them on to.


    1. Hi Richard,

      Sure, I’d be interested in reading your piece. I’m afraid I don’t have any influence on whether Red Pepper would publish it, and to be honest, it’s a bit late for a response. But my email is leigh dot phillips at gmail dot com in any case.


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